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"Greater Lore": Metafiction in Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker

By Rhee, Michelle Young-Mee | MELUS, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

"Greater Lore": Metafiction in Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker


Rhee, Michelle Young-Mee, MELUS


Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker (1995) is so beautifully written that its earliest reviewers were befuddled by the lyrical prose they encountered in what seemed at first a spy novel. In his review for The New Yorker, Verlyn Klinkenborg observes, "every sentence is a climax and an understatement, a koan of its own. It's the right language for insight ... but it's the wrong language for telling a spy story.... Spying seems, after all, too small a vehicle for ambitions of the kind that Chang-rae Lee rightly harbors" (76). (1) Critics have flocked to this text, homing in on the metaphors and tropes of spying in Lee's masterful work. Tim Engles succinctly points out how the "[t]he book's guiding metaphor, figured in Henry Park's job as a spy, cleverly elucidates the immigrant's stance as a watchful outsider in American society, but Henry's double life also figures largely in his equally representative struggles to decide for himself what kind of person he is" (par. 1). (2) Others observe how Lee mixes suspense with thoughtful prose, managing to fold an immigrant narrative into the unlikely genre of the spy novel. Tina Chen even uses the term mask to describe Lee's use of a spy novel to "expose the limitations of form in narrating Henry's story" (154).

This is truly a strange sort of novel. Lee's innovative way of questioning identity through the trope of the immigrant spy misleads most readers into neglecting the author's more interesting metacommentary on the challenges specific to Asian American writers in America. In this essay, I begin with the subtler elements of allegory that link the multi-ethnic intelligence-gathering operation led by Dennis Hoagland to the market and cultural conditions of Asian American writing. Then, by way of an intertextual and twinned version of betrayal in Suki Kim's novel The Interpreter (2003), I expose the real betrayal in Lee's novel.

"What does it mean to 'betray,' and what is it that is betrayed?" asks Crystal Parikh in her essay on Native Speaker (252). Parikh does not answer this poignant question, but instead moves into a discussion of the formation of agency "in relation to and in excess of racial and national totalities" and how loyalty functions in the "troubled figure of the minority spy" (251). Parikh's simple question, however, is vital to a better understanding of this novel, for betrayal occurs on multiple levels. My examination of the concept of betrayal differs from Leslie Bow's interest in the "very structure of allegiance" (15) or the way in which "expressions of sexuality both signify and interrogate political alliance and ethnic collectivity" (8). Rather, I tie Henry Park's undoing of another Korean American and a multitude of other immigrants not simply to the cost of assimilation or interpellation, but also to a disguised metacommentary made by the author himself. This metacritical stance advances what Mikhail Bakhtin describes as a "hidden polemic," wherein "each assertion about that object is constructed in such a way that, besides its referential meaning, the author's discourse brings a polemical attack to bear against another speech act, another assertion, on the same topic" (187). By crafting a lovely prose to depict a brutal betrayal, Lee is able not only to dismantle the stereotype of the model minority but also simultaneously to advance a hidden polemic that quietly rails against the unfolding of a legacy of multiculturalism in the United States.

Multiculturalism has various meanings, and it is important to remember Susan Koshy's enjoinder to theorize adequately or have more "finely honed criteria" when discussing the term. The word tends to be "so capacious," Koshy finds, "that recognition of it as a textual feature signals a critic's self-positioning as progressive and up-to-date, rather than illuminating in any specific way the dynamics of the text." Moreover, in their desire to unify a group of texts as Asian American, critics often use multiculturalism as an overarching term when in fact those texts' varying uses of the term actually differentiate them from one another.

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